Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1118/31918
Overwhelmed, underfunded, underpaid, and still fighting for safe PPE
Holly Johnston, Sheffield Socialist Party and NHSPay15 campaign organiser
On the front line we're seeing whole wards being wiped out with staff sickness. In my own trust, at the start of January, there was approximately 9% staff absence. When an area has an outbreak, it brings it to its knees. This is not because of a lack of effort and hard work from staff. We're simply working in an already overwhelmed NHS under a government that doesn't prioritise the safety of workers.
Hospitals across England are getting more and more likely to reach capacity, compounding the difficulties already faced by the shortage of NHS beds in England, which have been halved over the last 30 years.
Around 50,000 staff are off sick with Covid-19 or self-isolating. There are already 100,000 vacancies in the NHS due to the government's lack of funding and not prioritising recruitment and retention of staff. One-third of nurses are considering leaving, with the pandemic highlighting the mental health strain on staff as well as the financial health problems many of us face.
The hospitals are relying on the good will of already exhausted staff to pick up overtime shifts, or on agency workers who are often moved from area to area without being routinely swabbed.
Unions and other grassroots campaigns have been fighting for Public Health England to update the current PPE guidance. The science available clearly outlines the requirement for higher-level protection in all areas treating suspected and Covid-19 patients, not just for aerosol generating procedures. We now know that Covid-19 is spread by large droplets and small aerosol particles which are generated by coughing, talking and even breathing.
At the beginning of the first wave, we were all geared up for mask fit testing and to wear higher-grade FFP3 masks. However, this quickly changed and we were supplied with just surgical masks and visors. It became evident that the guidance was based on what masks were available rather than what was needed.
NHS trusts should interpret national PPE guidance as the bare minimum level, not the absolute ceiling for PPE. Some trusts have shown it can be done, with Homerton, Plymouth and Southampton, among others, all changing their guidance to ensure safer working conditions.
Healthcare workers are three to four times more likely to contract Covid-19 and the ongoing pressure on the NHS is huge. As many as one in ten that have had Covid-19 face long Covid issues.
It's worrying what the NHS workforce in the future will look like without urgent prioritisation of funding, a stop to outsourcing and cuts, and better safety for the workers.
At the last count 670 healthcare workers had sadly lost their lives, with the up-to-date data no longer being made available.
Health and Safety England is in the pockets of the bosses. It has come to light that it has been signing off PPE that isn't fit for purpose. That highlights the need for a replacement body under the control of the trade union movement, while also strengthening the argument for a nationalised manufacture and supply chain.
The quality of the PPE has been variable with aprons and gloves in particular ripping upon wearing them. The leadership of the NHS unions need to fight for what is needed. We know that unions that fight are unions that grow, and activists need to push for a fighting programme which will bring about change and expand union strength in our workplaces.
The vaccine programme is bringing some new hope for many NHS workers, but we must not let the government use this as a reason to be complacent and come out of national lockdowns too soon. The vaccine will help lessen the severity of symptoms in most people, but will not stop you being a carrier for the virus.
We also do not want the vaccine programme to fall into the laps of another Tory crony and become another private contract. The misinformation and lack of clarity from the government is worrying as it only helps to dissuade people from having the vaccine, potentially reducing the uptake.
Student nurses have been having a particularly rough ride, with first and second years essentially working for free during the pandemic and still having to pay university fees. They are invaluable pairs of hands on the wards and are definitely not upholding their usual supernumerary status. This means that they are being treated as if they are part of the workforce. Some third years are getting paid, but it is dependent on whether individual trusts are willing to issue contracts.
After decades of cuts and privatisation it comes as no surprise that the NHS is already overwhelmed. The true picture of the extent of the damage is yet to be seen. What has become apparent, with more urgency than ever, is the necessity of a party that represents the needs of health workers; one that will bring the NHS into public ownership and control, one that will defend services, fight austerity and oppose pay freezes.
The Socialist Party demands
- An emergency increase in funding for the NHS and social care
- Full PPE for all staff, for production and distribution to be taken into public ownership under democratic workers' control
- Unions must mobilise for a 15% pay rise for NHS staff
- For the scrapping of training fees and for free emergency training for staff to respond to the pandemic. Reintroduce training bursaries
- For the NHS to take over private healthcare facilities to be run in the interests of all
- Nationalise the big pharmaceutical companies, including the testing labs and vaccine production and distribution
- For a socialist plan of production and workers' control and management of the pandemic response
In The Socialist 27 January 2021:
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